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More planning, less finger-pointing

January 15, 2007|by Lyn Widmyer

Last month's attempt by members of the Jefferson County (W.Va.) Commission to fire county planning and zoning director Paul Raco sparked a lot of controversy.

Community members questioned whether Christmas was an appropriate time to dismiss an employee. Others felt it was unfair to fire Raco in public session without written justification. These concerns about how Raco was being treated eclipsed comments from other community members that he should have been dismissed years ago.

Upon advice of legal counsel, the Commission tabled the matter.

The approach used to remove Raco was not very professional. On the other hand, I have not been impressed with Raco's performance as the chief planner of Jefferson County.

Our zoning rules and subdivision regulations are as arcane and convoluted as the day he took office almost two decades ago.

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There is no commitment to community outreach, community education or community involvement. The comprehensive plan is gathering dust. I attended a planning commission meeting where Raco did not even bother to give the Commission members a copy of the subdivision plan under review.

Given these problems, how has Paul Raco survived all these years? By becoming more of a bureaucrat than a planner. As a former planning commission member observes, "the planning director is one of the best office politicians I have ever been exposed to. he is very comfortable with the status quo."

The status quo consists of confusion at the highest levels of government about who is responsible for what aspects of the planning and zoning process.

The planning commission blames the County Commission for not giving it authority and responsibility over staff. The County Commission blames state planning legislation for limiting its ability to make things better. County Commissioners seem distrustful of the planning commission, even though they appoint the members.

Raco says this climate of chaos and confusion prevents him from being more productive. I hear this lament whenever I ask why the planning process cannot be more user-friendly and more in tune with modern planning and zoning practices.

Raco is always sympathetic. He then states his hands are tied by (a) the County Commission or (b) the planning commission or (c) state law or (d) all of the above.

The Jefferson County Commission needs to stop the finger pointing and confusion over who should be doing what. This means establishing clear lines of accountability in the planning department and clearly defining the role to the chief planner.

Most importantly, the relationship of the County Commission and the planning commission and staff needs to be straightened out. The County Commission has hired a consultant to look at the structure of county government. The planning department should receive top priority.

Several years ago, a local chapter of the American Planning Association sold a T-shirt stating a planner is "someone who cannot leave bad enough alone."

The confusion and finger pointing that is the hallmark of planning in Jefferson County is not only leaving bad enough alone, it is making things worse.

Please, Jefferson County Commissioners, make it stop.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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